Sunday, October 19, 2014

Selflessness is Selfishness

Two things about that title: first, selflessness is not always selfishness. It's kind of a conditional thing. Second, selfishness in this context is not a bad thing.

What I mean is that sometimes being selfless can lead to long term gains after short-term losses while being selfish can lead to long-term losses after short-term gains.

Wait, let me start over.
Sometimes in video games being a Good Person is easy: you choose the Good Person dialogue option and you're immediately rewarded with Good Person points. Sometimes you fulfill a quest and you're offered a reward. If you turn down the reward, you get less or no money but get more EXP instead. There are many ways in which being a Good Person is instantly rewarded.

In real life, though, selflessness is costly. If you give money to charity, that money is gone, and there's nothing personally gained. If you put in a few extra hours at work, especially when you're salaried, you're spending time that you're not going to get back.

However, though I believe in the 40 hour work week, I often find myself working on the weekends. Not as often as I was when I first started here, but still often enough. So, why should I sacrifice myself for this company?

Well, for one thing, the more I work, the better the company does. By helping the company grow, I'm indirectly helping myself. Beyond the satisfaction of simply getting work done, there's a very real correlation between the amount of work I do for Fangamer, the company's growth, and my own paycheck. So, the more work I put in, the faster we grow, and the sooner we get to that next pay raise. (This doesn't apply just to the number of hours worked. It also applies to working efficiently and skillfully, taking pride in your work, etc.)

This is a phenomenon that isn't unique to Fangamer. The correlation between a single worker's work and the overall health of the company is more direct here than at a larger company due to the smaller scope, but in theory this is a phenomenon that can exist in any company... provided the right leadership, anyway.

For instance, I recently heard a This American Life episode about Barbados, a small Caribbean island that was hit hard by the recession. Specifically, their primary source of income was tourism, and during the worst of the financial crisis Americans simply weren't that interested in Caribbean vacations. After a brilliant instance of workers, companies, and government coming together, the people of Barbados took a massive pay cut for a short term loss that at least allowed the country to survive. Then, the workers and companies started meeting with each other regularly to see how conditions could improve on both sides; the companies were transparent about their financial situation, and it became clear that the more passionately the hotel workers worked, the more business the hotels saw, which allowed the hotels to start paying their workers better, and so on. Barbados bounced back from the recession very quickly thanks to the selfless devotion of its workers and the fair-minded company managers that worked with them.

That said, I never felt like my hard work at Gamestop was every really appreciated at any level higher than my store manager. Selflessness would not result in much at a company like that. (Not that it stopped me. I once got in a battle of wills with a manager because I refused to stop working while I was off the clock. Though, to be fair, letting me work off the clock was illegal.)

However, selfishness could really come back to bite you. Let's talk about Rome again for a moment.

Early in Rome's history, sometimes its armies would be decimated by an enemy, but Rome's greatest strength was not admitting defeat: when one army fell, they would just form a new one somehow and get right back to fighting. It was an honor as well as a duty to fight, and fight they did.

However, at some point long after Rome's glory days, being a soldier was no longer an honor. In fact, the rich farm owners would hide their most able-bodied men when conscriptors would come around, as the land owners were loathe to let their best workers go off when it was much more profitable to keep them in the fields. So, naturally Rome was soon overrun by Goths and Huns, pillaging the countrysides unopposed due to an insufficient Roman army. I wonder how many of those farmers actually saw a correlation between their greed and the barbarian hordes on their land.

Anyway, I don't think selfishness is a good reason to be selfless, and not all selfless acts will result in any gains for you personally, ever. However, I'll take selfishly selfless people over the barbarian hordes any day.


  1. That's interesting, because Clinton was saying much the same thing in this Colbert interview:

    Thought you'd be interested in case you missed it.

    1. He's also got an almost annual interview on The Daily Show, all up on the show's website. The most recent was in September.